Uncounted: Why Russia’s Covid-19 Numbers Don’t Add Up
5 June, 2020
Photo: Yuri Kozyrev/Novaya Gazeta for a special report that documents shifts of Moscow ambulance workers at the 'ground zero' of Russia's outbreak.

Russia is suffering from the third-largest COVID-19 outbreak in the world, with over 449,000 cases. Officially, Russia's death rate is at around 1% - significantly lower than that of other countries with similarly large outbreaks. But few believe the official data. Now, journalists are using official statistics and data processing tools to shed light on Russia's real coronavirus mortality. 

With nearly 60% of the country's cases registered in Moscow's capital city, our partner outlet Novaya Gazeta examined over a decade of data from the local municipal registry office and spoke with independent experts for a new investigation that exposes Russian officials severely underreporting the coronavirus death toll. 


Since the beginning of the epidemic, independent experts have been calling Russia’s Covid-19 statistics into question. Poor testing and even testimonies from Russian authorities point to a much larger outbreak than what official figures show. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said screening results suggested that 2% of the city’s 12 million residents could be infected, meaning that Moscow alone would account for some 240,000 cases.

Healthcare workers are also often omitted from the statistics altogether. Novaya Gazeta reported on how officials at one of the largest hospitals near Moscow tried to conceal three coronavirus deaths and many more infections among the staff. Medical workers there deal with a severe shortage of resources, while the administration bans donations from volunteers.

Can’t Hide Death 

Authorities recorded the first Covid-19 deaths in March 2020, but the mortality rate only really began to grow mid-April. Officially, around 5,500 people have died from coronavirus in Russia. That’s 38 deaths per million people. For comparison, Brazil, which currently has the second largest outbreak in the world and a population of 209 million, has registered 160 Covid-19 deaths for every million people. Meanwhile, the UK, with 281,661 cases, has registered a mortality rate of 588 people for every million. 

Photo: Yuri Kozyrev/Novaya Gazeta for a special report that documents shifts of Moscow ambulance workers at the 'ground zero' of Russia's outbreak.

Experts say that Russia’s mortality rate looks implausible. But even unaccounted for Covid-19 victims are reflected in general mortality statistics. 

Last month, Moscow's municipal registry office released its mortality data for April. Novaya Gazeta used state data from 2006 to 2019 to calculate the average monthly mortality rate and cross-checked it with a recent death rate. According to their estimates, the average number of deaths for any April is 9,991. However, last April 11,846 deaths were recorded. That's 19% more than the capital's average for April. Meanwhile, the official number of Covid-19 deaths in the capital for this period is 658 people - 2.8 times less than the number of excess deaths.

At the same time, the figures are comparable to those recorded during the flu season. In December 2016, 12,080 people died in Moscow and in January last year - 12,037 people. 

Sergei Timonin, an associate professor at the Institute for Demography at the Higher School of Economics, tells The Moscow Times that only 35% of those diagnosed with coronavirus were included in Moscow's official statistics.

Experts attribute the upsurge in deaths to the pandemic. Tatyana Mikhailova, an associate professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy, tells Novaya Gazeta that the additional fatalities could be attributed to coronavirus directly or indirectly. 

"Because all medical resources are mobilized to fight the epidemic, it may be difficult for many people to get medical help for other diseases or get an ambulance. Such people will also be among the unaccounted deaths," she said. 

Boris Ovchinnikov, director of research at Data Insight, also points to Russia's healthcare system, overburden by the outbreak. However, he adds that the mortality rate could also be higher due to the crisis and self-isolation. There is no data to evaluate this. 

"It is clear that quarantine works in both directions: it reduces the number of accidents on the road and the street, reduces the risks of the old catching some other infection. At the same time, it can increase [mortality] due to domestic violence, suicide, etc.," Ovchinnikov says.

Manipulating Statistics

For sure, Russia is not the only country where the Covid-19 death rate doesn’t add up. The New York Times estimated that across 25 countries, at least 87,000 more people have died during the pandemic than official Covid-19 mortality data shows.  

Countries have different approaches in counting their dead, and the World Health Organization only issued recommendations on registering Covid-19 deaths in mid-April. By that time, nearly 150,000 thousand people had succumbed to the virus. 

Photo: Yuri Kozyrev/Novaya Gazeta for a special report that documents shifts of Moscow ambulance workers at the 'ground zero' of Russia's outbreak.

At the same time, in Russia authorities tend to manipulate statistics. A Moscow pathologist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Novaya Gazeta that Russia only attributes the fatality to Covid-19 if the patient dies directly from the infection. This means that coronavirus victims who died from complications may not be included in the death toll. 

That was the case with one of the first known coronavirus deaths in Russia. Officials reported that the 79-year-old Covid-19 patient died of pneumonia but later stated that a blood clot was the official cause of death. In contrast, the US, for example, counts all patients who died with a confirmed Covid-19 test. 

A former Russian Federal State Statistics Service employee told Novaya Gazeta that the situation had deteriorated in May when Putin ordered regions to fight the outbreak better and, therefore, lower mortality rates from Covid-19 complications. But since there's a long history of authorities manipulating statistics to please the Kremlin, nobody can establish a realistic baseline for a 'better' or 'worse' mortality rate. It means it is easier for officials to fix the data, rather than trying to accomplish unrealistic goals.

"Now, no one understands how mortality from various causes changes over the years. It is so distorted that it cannot be used," the source said. 

Furthermore, human error needs to be taken into account. A former state registry worker sometimes says the wrong age or the wrong cause of Death is entered. 

"As soon as the system sees a logical error, it generally blocks this death," they said. 

Russia's Health Ministry said that the registration of deceased patients with coronavirus depends on the final diagnosis. Officials have been further empowered to enforce their narrative by a new law that bans virus-related "fake news." The state has already accused many Russian independent newsrooms, including Novaya Gazeta, of 'spinning false narratives' based on interviews with anonymous sources — like the ones you've read inside this story. 

Photo: Yuri Kozyrev/Novaya Gazeta for a special report that documents shifts of Moscow ambulance workers at the 'ground zero' of Russia's outbreak. 

Even foreign newsrooms haven't remained immune to government threats. In May, Russian officials launched an attack on western news outlets Financial Times and The New York Times, who published similar investigations showing that mortality data indicated Russia could be underreporting its COVID-19 death toll. Officials said they would be demanding retractions. A lawmaker called for the reporters to be stripped of their Russian accreditation.

/Translated and abridged by Natalie Vikhrov, with materials from Novaya Gazeta correspondents Katya Bonch-Osmolovskaya, Artyom Schennikov, and Ekaterina Martynova. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.